When I think back to my childhood in the Midwest, some of my solid memories are of the car trips my family took. They were mostly to Florida or Ohio, my brother and me facing out the back of our station wagon, on the way to Disneyland or to the roller coasters at Kings Island and Cedar Point.
Even now, much of the U.S. and its historic places I haven’t yet seen. The mountain towns, deep blue lakes and woody national parks have taken on an allure, and our conversations at home revolve around where we should travel next.
In early August, Tim and I sketched out a path that would be our family’s first Americana road trip. Through the gracious notes and recommendations of friends, we found quiet lakeside towns and winding scenic drives. We drove from Chicago through Iowa and into the massive mountains of South Dakota and Wyoming. We passed alfalfa, millet and sunflower fields along the way.
Our first stop was Okoboji, Iowa. We rolled in late afternoon and went straight to dinner beside Lake Okoboji followed by dessert at the Nutty Bar stand. At sundown, we strolled the outer walks of Arnolds Amusement Park and admired the vacation cottages along the way.
We continued on to the Badlands of South Dakota. There are hikes and tours of the ruddy peaks, but in the 100 degrees heat we drove the scenic loop and stopped just briefly to feed prairie dogs. The town of Wall and its eponymous Wall Drug Store was a good place for dinner before continuing on to Rapid City.
I was the most excited to see Mt. Rushmore; my early memory is a bland photo in a history book. In reality, the sculpted faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln are breathtaking and handsome from any angle. I loved looking up to watch the sunlight and clouds change the shadows on their faces over the hours of the day.
We then took the wildlife drive through Custer State Park in the Black Hills, stopping in Keystone for an aerial ropes climbing park and miniature golf. We drove the craggy Needles Highway (a beautiful rocky path within the park) and ended the afternoon at Legion Lake, a bright spot to paddle and swim. One of the prettiest drives I’ve ever taken is the one that winds through Spearfish Canyon, a gorge along the edge of the Black Hills.
Our destination at week’s end was Devils Tower, the granite rock that rises up along northeastern Wyoming. The hike around the Tower was pretty and easy enough, but the best view came from the distance (see below). As a nod to my upbringing and summers spent at amusement parks, we finished our vacation at Adventureland, where I discovered the perfect mini-donut. For all the complaints of long drives and hearing “are we there yet?” non-stop, this vacation felt like a new beginning for us travel-wise.
STAY | The Rushmore Hotel (Rapid City, SD) | A little bit rock ’n’ roll. Downtown and walkable.
SEE | Arnolds Park (Okoboji, IA) | Picturesque theme park along the lake. Badlands National Park (SD) | Scenic loop, prairie dogs and wildlife. Wall Drug (Wall, SD) | Historic drug store with shops and food. Mt. Rushmore (Rapids City, SD) | National monument. Spearfish Canyon (Black Hills, SD) | Incredible geography, beautiful drive. Custer State Park (SD) | Wildlife and the Needles Loop Highway. Devils Tower (WY) | National monument.
DO | Bear Country (Rapid City, SD) | Drive-through wildlife park. Aerial Adventure Park (Keystone, SD) | High-ropes course and zip-lining. Sylvan Lake & Legion Lake (Custer Park, SD) | Local swimming holes. Adventureland (Des Moines, IA) | All-ages rides and water park.